What’s in a Title? Exploring Gender and Naming Trends of the Disney Princess Movies

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Something that’s always nagged at me is the swap to gender-neutral titles for the later Disney Princess movies. Before then, Disney has always taken pride in naming movies after protagonists, so what changed? Let’s take a trip through titling history and find out.

Thus far, there are twelve Disney Princess movies. They are (in order):

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
  2. Cinderella (1957)
  3. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
  4. The Little Mermaid (1989)
  5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
  6. Aladdin (1992)
  7. Pocahontas (1995)
  8. Mulan (1998)
  9. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
  10. Tangled (2010)
  11. Brave (2012)
  12. Frozen (2013)

Out of these, 7/12 either contain the princess’ name, or a title referring to her (ex: Sleeping Beauty, TLM). Two of these – Beauty and the Beast, and The Princess and Frog – involve a princess sharing a title with their love interest. There are a few reasons for this.

The majority of the Disney princess movies are named after the fairytale/legend they were inspired from. For example, Mulan comes from the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, while The Little Mermaid was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Little Mermaid. (Seeing the similarities here?) Since Disney takes a lot of inspiration from myths and fairytales, they also tend to use the titles (or similarly stylized titles) as well. Makes sense, right?

reaction yes

The movies are also often titled with a name/title related to the protagonist to show 1) who the story is about, and 2) that this is the heart of their journey. For example, to take an example from a non-Princess movie, Hercules is about Hercules trying to discover who he is, and find his place in life. Mulan is about Mulan, who doesn’t feel like she fits into the confines of her society and breaks free of them when she joins the army and finally uncovers her true self. That’s why for #6, Aladdin makes sense as a title despite Jasmine’s heavy involvement in the plot. While Aladdin and Jasmine both get a bulk of the movie’s POV, Aladdin is the one whose journey we follow most. His character arc (proving his worth and showing everyone that he’s more than their assumptions) drives most of the plot. Thus, he inches ahead of Jasmine just a bit, making him the protagonist (main character) and her the deuteragonist (the secondary protagonist/second most important character).

The titles are also common sense: in marketing, you want to have a title that stands out and makes sense for the story you’re presenting to an audience. By naming their movies after the tale that inspired their story, or naming them after the protagonist, Disney makes it easy for an audience to see who and what their story is going to be about. Example: look at the title of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: it’s pretty obvious that this movie is about Snow White and her seven dwarf friends. The Little Mermaid is about a mermaid. Beauty and the Beast is about a beautiful girl and a beast… You get the picture.

The other three are our latest Disney Princess installments: Tangled, Brave, and Frozen. Notice the stark difference in titling between the early movies and 10-12. All three of these are one-word titles that detail actions or attributes rather than a name or specific tale. So what changed?

The simple answer: Disney wanted to appeal to boys.

The longer answer: The Princess and the Frog was the last movie with traditional Disney styling: it had 2D animation and the fairytale-based name. However, PatF was considered a failure by Disney, despite its success with critics, because it grossed less than many of the other movies that came out earlier in the Renaissance. Disney’s marketing believed that the word “princess” in the title was part of what caused the failure, because it labeled the movie as being for little girls specifically.

seriously? reaction

Now, let’s talk about this for a second. Why does the word “princess” = only girls want this? Unfortunately, that’s because of a little thing called gender roles, and the gender stereotypes that come with them.

According to Psychology Dictionary, gender roles arethe pattern of behavior, personality traits and attitudes defining masculinity or femininity in a certain culture.” A problem with gender roles is that they can often lead to gender stereotypes: pegging girls as one thing and boys as another when that isn’t always the case.

Some examples of this include: Pink is for girls, blue is for boys. Girls are emotional, boys are stoic. Men are financial providers, women are caretakers of the home and kids. And, according to Disney, “princesses” are for girls.

Looking at it this way helps explain the title change: in trying to avoid losing out on a male audience, Disney does a 180 and decides to use more gender-neutral titles. It’s interesting to point out that before this, Disney hasn’t really focused specifically on appealing to a male audience with their princess movies. While they never used “princess” in their titles before now, that made sense considering they named their movies after the stories themselves. Most of their Disney Princess merchandise and advertising also relates directly to the Princesses themselves. (Our only exception would be Aladdin, because, as I said before, Aladdin is our main protagonist, so most of the promo would naturally focus more on him.) PatF happened to get unlucky, maybe because of “bad marketing” as Disney said, or maybe because Avatar opened just after it and swept the floor with every other movie out there. Whatever the reason, it led Disney to try something new, and this where the new titling began.

I’m going to go through each of the three movies in order and talk about titles, marketing, and why it’s important to note Disney’s approach to each of the movies. All three of these could have had more traditional movie names, but Disney (and Pixar, in the case of Brave) decided to avoid that. So let’s start with Brave.

pixar_brave_2012-wide

As some of you may know, there was a point in time when Brave was going to be called The Bow and the Bear instead.

bear-and-the-bow-preview

However, while some believe this was the initial title, Brave’s producer, Katherine Sarafian, admits that Brave was always the initial title, although they did consider The Bow and the Bear for a while:

Right, first off the title from the very beginning was BRAVE, so BEAR AND THE BOW was actually a later detour and then we came back to BRAVE. (x)

So why Brave? Mic pointed out to me that before Brave, Pixar hadn’t done a female-led movie, so I think that’s part of the name divergence from traditional princess titles. But in a way, Brave’s title tries back to tradition. Unlike Tangled and Frozen, which are more abstract, Brave is a trait, and one that’s at the heart of Merida’s journey. Much like Mulan, Merida’s journey is all about being brave enough to step out of the confines of the role she’s been placed in and change her fate. Early teasers for the movie illustrate this well with her father’s monologue, in which he talks about bravery:

Now, the advertising for Brave is really interesting, because this is where you can see the start of Operation Appeal to Boys. There’s lots of action: darkened forests with dramatic music, Merida on her horse riding quickly through the woods, the scene at the end with the bear and Merida aiming an arrow at it…

brave merida notching arrow

Merida’s face is also concealed for a large chunk of the teaser, which I found interesting. Did the advertisers want to focus less on her gender in fear it would turn away boys?

brave i cant even brave reaction

The later trailers showcase Merida better, but don’t focus much on Merida and her mother’s bond (although it does show them bickering quite a bit):

While this could be in order to avoid showing the twist (which was also part of the reason The Bow and the Bear was nixed as a title option), one might wonder if the mother/daughter bond, a highly important part of the plot, is ignored for fear it wouldn’t appeal to boys. While Brave had some great promos, ignoring Eleanor and Merida’s relationship loses out on a potential alternative way to draw in more viewers. Instead, the relationship comes as a pleasant surprise to those who weren’t expecting it, but is also frustrating at the same time because it gets no promotion.

brave bear mombrave that's my mother

brave merida and mom

There is some good in Brave’s promotion though. I like that the promo doesn’t classify bravery as a gendered trait (the use of “we” throughout the trailer). Brave is about a girl being brave, and the trailers showcase that. To this regard, Pixar does a better job at following Disney Princess tradition than Disney does in their next two Princess movies.

Next up: Tangled, where things get really sticky.

tangled-poster-0

Tangled went through quite a few title changes, as well as a ton of creative changes. (The concept was a lot different, and more of a spiritual successor to Enchanted, with two teenagers traveling to a fairytale world as a sort of reverse to Giselle winding up in the real world. Very, very different from the actual movie we got. Sounds cool though.)

Originally, Tangled was supposed to be called Rapunzel Unbraided, which 1) is a really awesome title, and 2) actually tells a lot more about Rapunzel’s journey. Much like Quasimodo, Rapunzel’s story is all about stepping out of her comfort zone, leaving behind the known safety of her tower and venturing out into the unknown to discover the world and see the lights. For this reason, Rapunzel Unbraided would’ve been so much more of a fitting title than Tangled.

rapunzel unbraided

(Note how different the writing is from how Tangled is written. It’s more glittery and “princess-y” – those elements are removed from the final logo to make it appear more “gender-neutral.”)

The styling was also incredibly different. While there was CGI involved, it was more 2D-based, and meant to look like traditional oil paintings in motion. This can be seen in the animation of Rapunzel’s hair for the title sequence, and in early test footage:

rapunzel unbraided hair flowing 1 rapunzel unbraided hair flowing 2

My reaction upon seeing this was:

this is the best reaction

totally awesome starkid reaction

Promptly followed by disappointment that Disney didn’t go in this direction.

stewart reaction why not just pull out my heart

Because Disney did not go in this cool innovative direction. Instead, we got the CGI style that they then uncreatively reused for Frozen.

come on reaction gif

not impressed reaction

:,( As someone who loves animation, this wounds me. Let me grieve what could’ve been.

waiting reaction

ugly sobbing reaction

Next up was the title change to Rapunzel.

rapunzel title

Not too drastic of a change title-wise; it relates back to the actual fairytale it was inspired by, it’s simple and to the point…so why did they change it? WHY MESS WITH PERFECTION?

It all leads back to Disney’s attempt to appeal to boys. In Disney’s mind, by changing the title to Tangled, it presents a more gender-neutral title. However, it actually ends up relating more to Flynn than it does Rapunzel, since he gets “tangled up” in Rapunzel’s plot. (One of the promos actually has a line that says “it takes two to get tangled,” which proves this point.) The promotion for the movie is also heavily focused on Flynn, making him out as the protagonist and Rapunzel as the Jasmine to his Aladdin, which is definitely not the case in the movie. The promo though, would like you to believe otherwise:

The focus on Flynn and his thieving antics/adventuring are yet another tactic to appeal to boys, and one that, like Brave, leaves out essential plot points like the fact that Rapunzel drives the majority of the movie with her journey. It also leaves out Rapunzel and Mother Gothel’s bond, which is hugely importantly to the plot. Again, we have a relationship between two women not shown to “appeal to boys” and it’s very unsettling. It devalues both women’s bonds and our lead woman herself, who doesn’t show up until halfway through the promo.

u serious right now? reaction

It also paints Rapunzel’s character as more of a tough girl/badass, and lacks the nuiance of who she really is as a character. It’s quite frustrating, but since we still have one last movie to cover, I’ll move on. (And express my frustration via gif.)

quinn's disdain reaction gif

Okay, onto Frozen!

disney frozen pic

Frozen was originally supposed to be The Snow Queen, since it was based off the fairytale of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson. The direction was a bit different initially, where Elsa was the antagonist rather than Hans. (As seen in early character sketches.

Disney's__The_Snow_Queen_

Thus, the title suggests an Elsa-heavy movie, considering well, she’s the Snow Queen.

seems legit reaction

Obviously over time, the direction changed, and Elsa became more sympathetic in nature. The title also changed to Frozen, which is kind of boring, but also like Brave makes sense in a way, considering how central Elsa and her powers are to the plot. Despite Anna being our protagonist, Elsa’s character arc has more depth and more of an impact on the plot, so the title being more related to her makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense is the promotion.

The teaser for Frozen contains neither of the female leads and instead focuses on Olaf and Sven.

frozen wait what

That’s right! It focuses on a snowman and a reindeer, both of whom are minor characters. This is so insultingly “let’s avoid mentioning the women” that it makes me angry.

the lord is testing me reaction

It gets worse. The official promo is so insulting in so many ways that it makes me angry.

First, while the trailer focuses on Anna, Kristoff, Hans and Olaf, there’s a certain important character who is extremely neglected: Elsa. Like I said earlier, Elsa is our second protagonist, and drives quite a bit of the plot. But you wouldn’t know that, based on the five seconds we see her. She’s barely even in the trailer, even though she plays a huge part in the movie. It’s ridiculous.

rude copy reaction

Anna and Elsa’s relationship is also noticeably absent. For a movie that prides itself on being built on a sisterly bond, we really don’t see any of that promoted in the trailer. The only indication we get that Elsa and Anna are even related is when Anna says “that’s no a blizzard, that’s my sister!”

tmz 7 reaction

Just like Merida and her mother, and Rapunzel and Mother Gothel, Elsa and Anna’s relationship gets absolutely no focus whatsoever. Again, this gives me uncomfortable vibes that it was excluded in order to appeal more to boys.

Speaking of boys…we get a lot of focus on Kristoff, Hans and Olaf, especially in what I like to call “the most offensive trailer montage ever.”

frozen who 1

frozen who 2

frozen who 3

frozen who 4

frozen who 5

rejection reaction

This is such a messy promotional moment. First of all, these three guys are focused on before we even focus on Anna, which is insulting considering she is our protagonist – not Kristoff, not Hans, not Olaf, but ANNA.

Second, calling Anna “no man” is incredibly offensive. By having a category of guys/men and then saying “no man” Anna is being Othered based on her gender, which is really gross.

This whole promo is just not great. It’s misleading, focuses more on the guys in the movie than it does the two main characters, and worse, it has weird sexist undercurrents. By trying to appeal to boys, the advertising shuns girls and worse, Others them. We as a society already have a huge problem with women not being valued and viewed as unimportant, and the dismissive early promotion for Frozen does exactly that. What makes this sadder is that The Snow Queen (the original fairytale) has a lot of crucial female characters. Seeing only two women in the cast – and worse, undermining them and their roles – is spitting on the original tale in an awful way.

star vs. evil sad face

Conclusion

A title says a lot about a story. For Disney, their drastic 180 in titling shows their attempt to hook a male audience by hiding crucial female relationships as well as their female characters. Disney’s titles used to have merit and tell a lot about the story. Now, they feel flat and lack depth. Disney’s next princess movie is Moana. Since the title is reminiscent of older (/more awesome) titles like Pocahontas and Mulan, this could be a sign that they will 180 back and show more respect to their female audience. However, Disney has a lot to prove, and considering how poor their previous promotions have been, I won’t get my hopes up just yet. We’ll have to wait and see what the future brings, and hope it’s a lot less rage-inducing.

What do you guys think? Let us know in the comments!

Animated Meta can be followed on Twitter and Tumblr. Have a great weekend!

Cheers,

M&M

 

Works Cited

Pam. (n.d.). What is Gender Role? Retrieved May 29, 2015, from Psychology Dictionary: http://psychologydictionary.org/gender-role/

Sarafian, K. (2012, April 13). Exclusive: Katherine Sarafian, Producer of Pixar’s ‘Brave,’ Talks Director Controversy, Pixar’s Reaction to the Chilly ‘Cars 2′ Reception And More. Retrieved May 29, 2015, from SlashFilm: http://www.slashfilm.com/film-interview-katherine-sarafian-producer-pixars-brave-talks-controversy-marketing-cars-2-reactions/

 

 

 

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